By Mac Margolis and Robert Muggah -Open Democracy
After enduring years of online toxicity, Brazil now wants to show the world how to crack down on disinformation
Even as the armed forces and police broke up the 8 January insurrection in Brasilia, carting more than 1,000 rioters off to prison, the Brazilian rumour mills spun into high gear. Not surprisingly, sympathisers of defeated incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro were convinced that the vandals were the victims. Social media and private messaging groups lit up with tales of egregious police abuse, arbitrary arrests, and detention facilities akin to “concentration camps”.
Brazil’s alt-right influencers borrow heavily from their US counterparts. Just as conspiracists in the US speculated that antifa and the deep state were behind the assault on the Capitol on 6 January 2021, some rightwing social media channels blamed the storming of the ‘three powers’ – the presidential palace, congress and the supreme court – on leftwing provocateurs, who they claimed had infiltrated the movement to defame it.
Federal lawmaker Bia Kicis, a loyal Bolsonaro ally, took to Twitter to announce the death of an elderly woman in police custody. This was a lie, but no matter, the tweet notched up 1.1 million views before the fact-checkers moved in. Brazil’s excitable far-right web warriors are second to none on the post-truth battlefield.
After all, Brazil’s rightwing reactionaries have had ample practice spreading disinformation. In the four years since Bolsonaro won office in 2019, Latin America’s biggest democracy has become a hothouse of fake news and conspiracy theories, with many parallels to the US.
There is no shortage of lying across the country’s political spectrum, but the hard right sets the pace. In the 2022 general election campaign, this meant sharing wild rumours, smears, low blows and outright fabrications, as well as issuing paeans to junk science and trash-talking Brazil’s widely acclaimed electronic voting system.
So-called ‘Bolsonaristas’ posted roughly three times as many YouTube videos as Lula loyalists and the left, centre and mainstream media, according to research by the digital security team at Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank. Far-right YouTube channels also generated more than a billion views on the social media site between August and October 2022, and similarly enthusiastic engagement among Facebook and Instagram followers.
Brazil’s third largest newspaper, O Estado de São Paulo, highlighted that the far-right’s preferred target was the supreme court, which it reported was hit with a barrage of “threats, insinuations and plenty of disinformation” over its rulings that were meant to curb fake news.
Although the partisan fabulists failed to change the course of the election, they helped to ensure that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s second-round victory which he won by just two million votes was the narrowest since the return of electoral democracy to Brazil in the late 1980s. A poll taken shortly after the riots of 8 January showed that almost 40% of Brazilians still believed that Bolsonaro had won the presidential election. That the rioters in Brasília camouflaged their failed insurrection attempt with the same conceits only encourages the tactic of weaponising disinformation and misinformation.
It is unsurprising then, that one of Lula’s first actions as president was to launch an offensive against disinformation: the National Prosecutor’s Office for the Defense of Democracy. By tasking the Attorney General’s Office with overseeing the new office, the government sent an unmistakable message – Brasília is determined to win the war against fake news.
The initiative provoked a fierce backlash from the right-wing fringe and some proponents of free expression, who accused the government of creating an Orwellian Ministry of Truth to promote censorship. But it is not just the far-right who have misgivings over Lula’s new office. Digital rights activists have raised concerns over what constitutes ‘disinformation’, who decides which opinions constitute incitement, and what powers the office will have to police this.
This is a common theme – governments, companies, and activists worldwide are struggling not just to contain misinformation, but to define it. Brazil’s Attorney General’s Office has drafted its own definition: “Voluntary intentional lying with the intention of harming public policy”. It is a description as sweeping as it is imprecise. Disinformation, according to the attorney general, includes any content meant to promote deliberate attacks against “members of public powers”. Such a broad mandate has caused pushback from opposition politicians and civil rights advocates who fear that it could be used to silence opponents and encourage censorship.
Brazil’s lawmakers understand the inherent risks of a vague remit. They worry that the new authority could be an invitation to legal adventurism if not outright arbitrariness. It might also invite a multitude of legal challenges that only a lawyer could love. The Attorney General’s Office has taken note and vowed that it has no intention of overreaching.
A world first
Brazil is not the only democratic country struggling with digitally curated falsehoods. India’s public authorities are also considering banning any news deemed “fake” on social media. Yet Brazil’s peculiarities have made it a bellwether for policy experimentation, improvisation and false starts.
The country is not just a vibrant and boisterous democracy, it is also a hyper-connected society of approximately 216 million, according to the latest census estimates, with roughly 118 mobile phones per 100 inhabitants, the world’s fifth-largest social media market and little patience for conventional news sources.
Brazil suffers from dysfunctional politics – 23 parties have seats in the National Congress and the Senate, turning every debate into a cage fight – and a deepening distrust of government, especially among young voters. This is all the better for bottom-feeding populists who play to the gallery, making Brazil a factory for algorithmically amplified hype and hoaxes.
But after years of online toxicity, Brazil now wants to show the world how to fight back. The Supreme Court’s rapid containment of online shenanigans – taking down fake news and occasionally sanctioning its purveyors – during the 2022 election season certainly provides a template for other countries. However, winning support for the effort at home won’t be easy.
While there is little doubt over the real-world impact of malicious disinformation – consider Bolsonaro’s state-sanctioned vaccine denialism in the country with the second-highest Covid death toll – there is no consensus among Brazilians about how to tackle one of democracy’s newest and most intractable problems.
Governments, companies, and activists worldwide are struggling not just to contain misinformation, but to define it
As is often the case with Brazilian politics, part of the drive to contain misinformation is also personal. Lula’s institutional crackdown follows a battery of threats and online attacks by right-wing mobs against Supreme Court justices and their families. Much of the fury centres on a single man: justice Alexandre de Moraes, the former São Paulo public security secretary.
Ever since he was named to the Supreme Court in 2017, Moraes has taken a tough stance on fake news. He has ordered super-spreaders of falsehoods to be jailed, those who bankroll them to be fined and dozens of allegedly seditious right-wing social media accounts to be taken down. Moraes has become so omnipresent that during a webinar, Rio de Janeiro State University Brazilian political analyst Beatriz Rey called him, only half-jokingly, “the protector of the realm”, after the overlord in ‘Game of Thrones’.
Although Brazil’s crusade to stamp out misinformation is widely admired, it also inspires apprehension. While Brazilians on the left point out that a majority of Moraes’s fellow justices eventually back his decisions, no one else on the country’s top bench has taken on the avenger’s role so earnestly. It has been suggested that Moraes’s inspiration is another controversial legal personality: Sergio Moro, the former trial judge who presided over the Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption scandal, but was later disgraced for overstepping his mandate on rulings deemed partial.
“Moraes wields the same powerful pen [as Moro],” said Claudio Lucena, a scholar at the State University of Paraíba who sits on the National Privacy and Data Protection Council. “Yes, the majority of justices usually back him up, but no one has the courage to take the initiative,” Lucena said, echoing critics who have accused Moraes of testing the limits of the law.
Although Moraes’s hyperactivity grates on critics, it highlights the diffidence of other national institutions. Federal lawmakers have been dithering over a bill to rein in fake news and the so-called ‘hate cabinet’, a troll farm for hate speech that has been operating since 2021 and is reportedly overseen by Bolsonaro’s second son, Carlos. Instead of investigating reports alleging digital defamation, incitement to violence and malicious content, Brazil’s prosecutor general has buried his head in the sand.
Official lassitude has forced the hand of the Supreme Court, which has eagerly stepped into the breach. Part of the problem is the top bench’s impossible mandate, serving simultaneously as a constitutional court, the nation’s ultimate court of appeals and a trial court for elected officials who have immunity from prosecution in lower tribunals. The result is a yearly docket of tens of thousands of cases, handing disproportionate powers to the 11 justices, whose every word is broadcast, parsed, and pilloried online and off. Congress encourages judicial overreach by routinely appealing legislative losses to the highest court. These processes are onerous. indeed Brazil has the costliest judiciary in the world by purchasing power parity.
Yet it would be misleading to reduce Brazil’s response to online disinformation to Moraes alone. The creation of the new office is part of an ongoing effort by the nation’s judiciary and civil society groups to cull fake news, conspiracies and hate speech from social media platforms. A new Digital Rights Coordinating office, which answers to the justice minister, will also join the fray.
The Attorney General’s Office must now make good on its vow to keep oversight from becoming censorship
Last year, Brazil’s National Council of Justice and Supreme Federal Court, together with more than a dozen agencies and organisations, launched a multi-sector panel to raise public awareness about the risks of producing and sharing disinformation. The resulting #fakenewsnao (#nofakenews) campaign has reached tens of millions. Meanwhile, the country’s top electoral court has signed agreements with all major social media companies to crack down on disinformation and set up a civil society-led observatory to monitor and report on dangerous online content.
The far-right dissenters include federal lawmaker and Bolsonaro scion, Eduardo, as well as many right-wingers from disparate parties outside the Bolsonaro bubble, such as federal legislators Kim Kataguiri of the liberal conservative União Brasil, Lucas Redecker of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party and Adriana Ventura of the libertarian Novo. Their foremost concern is the risk that the Lula government creates a Big Brother-style surveillance system to spy on adversaries and encroach on free speech, while also conflating opinion with criminal incitement.
In Brazil, the debate over how to regulate digital harms is heating up. With several provisions of the presidential decree yet to be determined, the Attorney General’s Office must make good on its vow to keep oversight from becoming censorship. At the same time, politicians and influencers who have leveraged fake news, conspiracies and hate speech into a niche enterprise are turning their digital guns on the new office. Either way, as Brazilian lawmakers and justices break new ground, governments around the world will be watching closely.
Much is at stake – and not just in Brazil. If legacy institutions are bleeding credibility everywhere, so is faith in online information. Trust in the internet has fallen by 18% in Brazil since 2019, one of the steepest declines among the 20 countries surveyed by the Germany-based New Institute. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the new media hucksters who rely on an unfettered digital speedway to dispatch their choleric cant to the public square may have become their own worst enemy.